1: Life is about relationships.
We spend our personal and professional lives gathering with others. “And we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another,” Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
“Gathering—the conscious bringing together of people for a reason—shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world,” she writes. “And yet most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways we gather.”
This reality has implications for all aspects of our life. The 2015 State of Enterprise Work survey found that “wasteful meetings” are the single biggest obstacle to getting work done. “We don’t even seem to be thrilled with the time we spend with our friends,” Priya writes. “The State of Friendship in America 2013: A Crisis of Confidence, found that 75 percent of respondents were unsatisfied with those relationships.”
Often when we bring people together, we are on autopilot, “following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs,” writes Priya.
When we do seek out advice or suggestions, we typically look to those who are focused on the “mechanics of gathering: chefs, etiquette experts, floral artists, event planners,” Priya observes. “By doing so, we inadvertently shrink a human challenge down to a logistical one. We reduce the question of what to do with people to a question of what to do about things: PowerPoints, invitations, AV equipment, cutlery, refreshments.”
Why? Because we believe those are the only details under our control.
Priya believes this approach is wrong-headed. When we focus on the logistics, we lose our focus on what matters: relationships and connection. As someone trained in group dialogue and conflict resolution, she takes an entirely different approach: “My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust, and connect for a specific larger purpose. My lens on gathering places people and what happens between them at the center of every coming together.”
2: The way a group is gathered dictates how successful it will be. By being intentional, we can transform an ordinary moment into something meaningful and unforgettable. “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try,” she writes.
Priya preaches preparation, preparation, preparation: “90 percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.”
3: How to start? Decide why we’re really gathering. Most people skip this critical starting point. Which Priya believes is a big mistake. We are wise to commit to a bold, sharp, meaningful purpose. We are on the lookout for something specific and unique: “How is this meeting or dinner or conference unique among the other meetings, dinners, and conferences you will host this year?” Priya asks.
One approach is to keep asking: Why? “Take the reasons you think you are gathering—because it’s our departmental Monday-morning meeting; because it’s a family tradition to barbecue at the lake—and keep drilling below them. Ask why you’re doing it. Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or value,” she writes.
Another tactic is to consider the larger needs the gathering might address. What problem are we trying to solve? A related technique involves reverse engineering: What’s the desired outcome, and then work backward. Or ask: How do we, the meeting participants, want to be altered by the experience?
“A Thanksgiving dinner animated by a purpose of getting difficult issues out in the open to break an impasse between family members is very different from a Thanksgiving dinner oriented toward levity after a grueling and stressful year. Knowing what you want to happen can help you make the choices to get there,” Priya writes.
Reflection: Identify three recurring meetings in which I participate. What is the purpose of each meeting? What is the desired outcome?
Action: Discuss with my team or with a peer. Make a change.